GSLV could help India’s space agency apply high technology towards economic goals.
On January 6, India’s space agency surmounted a major technological hurdle with the successful launch of its Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV). The GSLV significantly improves upon India’s other space rocket, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). The PSLV, which has had 24 successful flights over the past two decades, typically carries one tonne earth-observation satellites to Low Earth Orbit, but it cannot carry larger payloads to higher geostationary orbits. The GSLV, which has the same first two stages as the PSLV, along with additional boosters and a cryogenic third stage (initially imported from Russia but now built in India), can carry heavier payloads. It can lift five tonnes to Low Earth Orbit or two tonnes to geostationary orbit. And while four of the GSLV’s previous seven flights, including one with an Indian-built cryogenic engine, had failed, the latest GSLV launch has been successful. After additional flights to validate its performance, the GSLV could give India significant space capabilities that were previously beyond its reach.
First, the GSLV would reduce India’s dependence on foreign rockets to launch two tonne communications satellites into the required geostationary orbit. In the coming years, India’s space agency plans to launch several such GSATs from aboard the GSLV — it previously relied on European Ariane 5 rockets to launch these satellites. It should still be noted that the GSLV is not powerful enough to launch heavier, three tonne GSATs in future, which could carry a large number of transponders and facilitate a greater volume of communication — these would need foreign launchers until India develops its more powerful GSLV Mark-3.
Second, the GSLV gives India greater flexibility to launch an array of payloads. It allows India to launch not just civilian meteorology and communications satellites but also military communications satellites for its armed forces, and scientific payloads such as a moon rover and lander (the GSLV will carry these as part of India’s second mission to the moon later this decade).
Third, the GSLV gives India the capability to undertake human space flights. It can lift a four to five tonne space capsule carrying astronauts to Low Earth Orbit (India’s space agency has conceptualised such space capsules). Still, human space flight requires a launcher with 100 per cent success rate. Therefore, the GSLV would have to prove its reliability with many consecutive successful flights over the next decade, including at least three flights with unmanned space capsules, before it is used in manned missions.
Overall, the GSLV gives India better lift capabilities than the PSLV, and allows for modest cost and foreign exchange savings. Nevertheless, it has limitations. First, it has low launch rates — India’s government will …continued »